Torah and Action

For the Shabbat of September 15-16, 2017 – 25 Elul 5777
Parashat Nitzavim - VaYeilech
Torah: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9

I call as witness against you today the heavens and the earth: life and death I place before you, blessing and curse; now choose life, in order that you may live better… (Deuteronomy 30:19)

As we finish reading Deuteronomy, we also come to the end of the Jewish year and enter into our Days of Awe, Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur.

This is when we attempt to figure out how to better “choose life” for the year to come.

Let us choose life for those in need.

As our worries about the lives of our family, friends, and fellow citizens, in the paths of Harvey and Irma subside, let us contribute to help those whose livelihood and homes have been drastically impacted.

TBZ is collecting gift cards to send to our Jewish communities affected –Home Depot, Target, Walmart, and local grocery stores (H-E-B and Kroger in Texas, Publix and Kroger in Florida) – please send or drop any cards with Becky. We will send them to the local Federations in the impacted areas.

There will be a mission to volunteer our assistance in person in November – we will pass along details as they emerge.

Let us choose life for our community.

Joining together for the High Holy Days helps energize us and our connections with our extended Jewish Family. Please check out this video about the URJ Biennial. December 6-10 in Boston will be the biggest gathering of Jews in North America, and the most exciting way to find Jewish inspiration in the New Year.

I hope that all of you will join us in helping those in need, gathering for our High Holy Days, and making the trip to Boston for the Biennial.

Wishing safety, comfort, and inspiration as we enter the New Year,

Jonathan

Talk to Strangers

Rosh HaShanah Morning - 1 Tishrei 5777 - Monday, October 3, 2016
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

L’Shanah Tovah! A good New Year to all of you.

Here is a translation of the Binding of Isaac, which we have already heard beautifully chanted in Hebrew today.

God tested Abraham.
God called to Abraham saying: Abraham!
Abraham said: Here I am!
God said: Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac.
Go forth to the Land of Moriah, and take him up there for an offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.
Abraham got up early the next morning and loaded up a donkey with all that he needed for the offering. 
He took two servants with him, and Isaac, and departed for the place that God talked about.
Three days later Abraham saw the place from far away and told the servants to stay there with the donkey while he and his son would go up, make an offering, and then both return.
Isaac said to Abraham his father: Father!
Abraham said: Here I am, my son.
Isaac said: here is the fire and the wood, where is the lamb for the offering?
Abraham said: God will see to the lamb for the offering.
Then the two of them went on together.
They came to the place that God had spoken about.
Abraham built the altar, arranged the wood, and bound Isaac his son, and placed him on top of the wood.
Abraham stretched out his hand, he took his knife to slay his son.
But God’s messenger called out from heaven and said, Abraham, Abraham!
He said: Here I am!
He said: Do not lay a hand on the young man, do not do anything to him!
For now I know that you are in awe of God. You did not withhold your son, your only one, from me.
Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw: here was a ram caught in the thicket by its horns.
Abraham went and took the ram and offered it as an offering in place of his son.


Like many of you, I am troubled by this story. We read this every year on Rosh haShanah.

Why? Shouldn’t we be reading the opening chapters of Genesis, the story of the Creation of the World as a way to celebrate the birthday of the world?

Many years ago a congregant explained this to me. We Jews keep the stories that raise questions. We need stories that make us think. And so instead of the story of Creation, we read the Binding of Isaac, which forces us to ask this central question, “What was Abraham’s test?”

We ask this question on Rosh haShanah because how we answer it determines how we see God, religion, parenting - the sum total of Judaism in one single question.

Traditionally, we are told that this was a test of Abraham’s faith - will he blindly do what God told him to do?

I refuse to accept that God wanted to see if Abraham was willing to kill his son.

I refuse to accept that the point of the story is proving that we are willing to do something abominable in the name of God.

If this is not the test, then what is it instead?

I just finished Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, Here I Am. He focuses on the idea that when we call out to one another, we should follow the example of Abraham and say, “Here I am”. Abraham had to pass the test of being present.

Think about that.

Someone calls our name, doesn’t have to be God, can be a friend, a child, a spouse, a co-worker. What is our initial response?

How often do we look up from the thing we are doing and say, “Yes?” “What can I do for you?” Or sometimes more brusquely, “What do you want?”

What happens if instead, the next time someone calls our name, we say or fulfill the idea of, “Here I am.”

“Here I am” - to listen to you, to see you, to be here for you, to be present and not multi-task while talking to you.

The test that Abraham faced was how could he be truly present for God and Isaac his son. God called Abraham and Abraham responded: “Here I am”.

God’s request was terrifying and made no sense but Abraham felt that he had to follow it through - he was present for God.

Isaac interrupted their journey, called out to his father, and Abraham again responded: “Here I am”.

Isaac asked, reasonably, for clarification, “Where is the lamb?” Abraham had to be there for his son too, and placed his hopes and faith in it all working out in the end by saying, “God will see to the offering”.

And finally, on the top of the mountain, with the knife in his hand, Abraham has to be present for both God and his son Isaac. When he responds to God’s messenger “Here I am!”, Abraham is able to see the ram, and see his way to being there for both God and Isaac.

At no point in this narrative did Abraham respond to these interruptions with anything but his fullest self. The Torah doesn’t portray our ancestor as impatient or bothered by either his son or God in those moments.

Abraham offered full attention. “Here I am! Ready to listen to you with my full being.” Abraham was present and attentive to Isaac and to God. Abraham never turned away from facing the people who demanded his attention.

Abraham passed the test of full attention. He showed up fully, and, so what? We are still left asking: What kind of God asks this? What kind of father considered it?

We are not the only ones who ask, and asking is an age-old Jewish practice.

In the Middle Ages, Rabbi David Kimchi wrote that Abraham should have heard God say about Isaac: “take him up for an offering event” instead of “take him up and offer him”. The test is one of listening comprehension - can Abraham accurately understand what God is asking of him?

This is the rest of Rabbi Kimchi’s interpretation of the story.

Abraham originally misunderstood God and set out to take Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice.

As he got closer to the event, Abraham had his doubts. Isaac asked Abraham along the way, “Here is the fire and the wood, where is the lamb for the offering?” Even though Abraham may not have thought through what would happen, he responded with a true vision of the future: “God will see to the lamb for the offering.”. This is what would eventually happen!

We can imagine Abraham’s distraction as he planned this terrible act. Abraham faced the horror, and went on with only those thoughts in his mind. He didn't even notice the ram that was already there caught in the thicket by its horns. It was that moment with the knife over Isaac, when Abraham hesitated and heard God’s voice saying, “Do not lay a hand on the young man, do not do anything to him!” In that moment he raised up his eyes and saw the ram.

In that instant Abraham understood God’s real message. Abraham understood the wrongness of what he thought he had heard, and allowed himself to learn what God had originally asked him.

Abraham becomes a model for learning to do better, as opposed to a parent applauded for his willingness to murder his son. Abraham is a model of growth. He starts out misunderstanding God’s demand, along the way he hears his son’s protest, and at the end, he stops himself from committing a calamity.

Meanwhile, we also redeem God through this reading. God is no longer a malicious deity trying to gauge Abraham’s devotion by asking him to do something vile. Even in the face of not being understood, God gave Abraham more opportunities to do the right thing. Rather than shame Abraham as a murderer, God offered him an explanation that allowed Abraham to learn and grow. God didn’t say: Abraham, your barbarian, you misunderstood me! God said, “Now I know that you are so in awe of me, you will run and do something that I never intended”.

When someone has power over us, we may listen too closely and hear things that weren’t in the message.

Listening requires more than hearing, and learning requires more than following the directions. We need to look more deeply for real communication.

One of the most central prayers in Judaism is Sh’ma: Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One. After that opening line we continue with the paragraphs that start with “V’ahavtah” - You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your spirit, with all your being”. 

“Listening” closely was the lesson of Abraham, the first part of Sh’ma - “Listen up Israel!”

When Abraham paid attention he learned. The learning took place because Abraham also fulfilled the idea of the second part of Sh’ma - he listened, he loved, and he allowed what he heard and who he loved to change him.

Rabbi Zusya was the greatest and most righteous scholar of his time and he lay upon his deathbed, surrounded by his students and family. Rabbi Zusya looked around at all of them, and then began to cry. His wisest student asked him, “Master, why are you sad? You have lived a full life, touched so many lives, made such a difference, you have been like Moses to all of us.”

Zusya patted the extended hand of his student, reassuringly, and said, “That’s exactly what worries me. When I am judged at last, I will not be asked, ‘Were you as good as Moses?’ I will be asked, ‘Were you a good Zusya?’”

Zusya’s challenge was to be fully present at his death - not only for his loved ones and students who tell him how wonderful he is, but most importantly for himself.

How often do we turn away? How often do we let that moment that demands our attention pass?

Zusya’s question, “Am I a good Zusya?”, is our question during these holy days. Can I be the best even when faced with the worst? Can I show up for the demands of myself, my family, my community, my world, and be changed by them?

On this day when we celebrate the creation of everything, when the Shofar sounds to awaken us to our place in creation, our memory of who we are, and our task to make it all better, we must devote our full attention to being present, in the moment, no matter how difficult. We must allow ourselves to be changed and learn.

We have to be like Zusya when he worked to be present for himself. We have to be like Abraham when he allowed love to transform him. Self, parents, children, siblings, friends - we know that we need to do this in our close circle.

I am asking us to take this a step further and admit that we live in a world shared by one family - that we are all related and that if we follow the fundamental teachings of Judaism, that we are all created in God’s image and likeness, then we must aim to include everyone we meet in that close circle. We must be present for every person we meet.

Hard as this may seem, this is our task, we must save the world by being present and learning from everyone around us: one thought, one feeling, one conversation, one encounter, one relationship at a time.

We must overcome one of the first lessons we learned as children going out into the world - we must talk to strangers.

We must overcome our fears and reach out and be present for the person we will meet when we leave here today.

We get to be good people when we work on our relationships and when we reach out to the stranger. The stranger is the friendly person at the supermarket and the person whose presence makes us so uncomfortable that we normally ignore them.

We must be the people who break down the barrier between us and them.

This may be our mission, to be a light unto the nations as the smallest nation willing to reach out to everyone else.

The central message of the Torah is “Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt”.

We know what it is like to be oppressed, and even if we don’t remember it ourselves, we remind each other of it every year at the Passover Seder.

When our prayers remind us to “Hear O Israel!” and “Love God!” we must show up, pay attention, and be transformed by our love.

Say, “Here I am.”

Talk to strangers.

Our love and attention transforms the world.

L’shanah tovah.

Carl Sagan, the Jewish New Year, and Awe

For those of you wondering how we used a quote from Carl Sagan in last night's Friday Evening Shabbat Service previewing our new High Holy Day prayer book, Mishkan haNefesh, here is what we did...

The first blessing of the main part of the evening prayer service, called Ma-ariv Aravim, "the One who brings on evening", focuses on the miracle of creation, and so to honor creation we read this quote from page 5 of the prayer book:

"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths." 
- Carl Sagan

Judaism embraces the grandeur of a universe bigger than we can comprehend and grander than we ever thought as a basic component of awe for the mystery of the Creator of all. Perhaps that is how and why we Jews are distinctly "unconventional".

Wishing everyone a meaningful week, and a good end to the Jewish year of 5776 as we begin 5777 on Rosh haShanah, next Sunday evening, October 2.

Please check out the full calendar for services and events at Temple Beth Zion in Western New York here:
TBZ High Holy Day Info

Please contact me directly at: rabbifreirich@tbz.org
if you are interested in tickets - everyone gets to pray at TBZ!

The Joy of the Jewish Year

Temple Beth El, Erev Rosh HaShanah 5775, Wednesday, September 24, 2014

We are a wilderness people – our covenant was crafted at Sinai, a mountain in the desert, and our sense of peoplehood has been sculpted by years of homelessness. Most of our history has led us away from home, often as refugees.

We are a people who worry about our security.

We tell stories of our loved ones who keep bags packed, just in case. We worry if we have enough, or if we do enough – for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, for the world.

And now, in the face of all of our concerns, I am going to ask us to do something differently. I would like us to celebrate Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, as a real holiday of joy.

Even more than that, I will suggest that this season that leads to Rosh HaShanah, and emerges from it, can be one focused on bringing more celebration into our lives.

Now, I realize that this may be a tall order. The Jewish New Year is not a typical celebration. We don’t pop any bottles of champagne, and we have no festive countdown.

In fact, our encounters with Judaism at this season of Days of Awe can seem grim. Apologies, confessions, the lifting of our vows from the past year, God as merciful ruler accepting our transgressing selves back into God’s favor after prayer and fasting – a little apples and honey and the sounding of the shofar hardly make up for all of these serious and somber themes.

And who could blame us?

Our calendar feels like we go from tragedy to tragedy – we jest that the general Jewish holiday can be described most succinctly as: “They tried to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat.”

With all of our running and fleeing, and then thriving, we always hope, that for just a little while, we may have finally reached a place of safety. Maybe this time we won’t have to pack up our families. Maybe this time we are proven to be too nervous when we always have our passports up to date.

Let’s admit that while our tradition insists on calling this a celebration – this New Year’s Party that we have all shown up to this evening – this Rosh HaShanah – we have resisted its call to be joyful. A couple of millennia of homelessness, some truly unspeakable centuries of oppression, and then the last decades of unbelievable turnaround, about which we feel admittedly a little guilty – this history has led us to experience this holy day as darker than it was originally intended.

Embracing this Jewish journey is all about finding the little sources of joy around us. We Jewish people have been coping with our sense of permanent exile for two thousand years, during which we have created a whole year’s worth of holidays and countless daily and personal practices that are meant to offer us ways of emphasizing the rhythm between a low point and a high point. We descendants of Israel who grapple with loss on the scale of generations and continents must also figure out how to highlight the good times.

Let’s start with the basics – our lives and the world are miraculous. Jewish tradition as represented by the great Nachmanides reminds us that we must not rely on miracles in our everyday life, and we must acknowledge that we are constantly surrounded by the miraculous.

We are the people who notice small miracles in the littlest of things. We must be. How else could we have survived the last two thousand years with a sense of hope that things will turn out better? When we look closely at the world, we can immerse ourselves in an ocean of reasons to wonder.

To look at the world through thoughtful, Jewish eyes, is to stare with awe and gratitude, and indeed joy, at creation.

To awaken to the morning in a Jewish manner is to begin with words of thanks.

I aim to follow a rhythm of life that brings little pieces of joy into my consciousness every day. Each morning I gather our family together to sing the Hebrew words of gratitude, the song Modeh Ani, as a way of starting the day with thanks. Some days it works really well. Last week all four of us were up in time to gather together. Ginny, Jude, our seven-year-old, and I sang our morning song, and Sadie, our almost ten-month old, crawled from Ginny’s lap towards Jude and me, adding her voice to our song. We were all singing, in our own way, and definitely feeling grateful.

It was wondrous. Even though the morning still had its struggles, the memory of those moments of grace is still sustaining a week later.

Many of you may have noticed that I share my regular runs via social media.

Let me tell you, I do not have an easy time dragging myself out for a run in the morning: no matter how good it is for me, no matter how much better I will feel about life, the universe, and everything, afterwards.

So I make sure that I get my mind into a grateful place when I am done. I am grateful that I managed to do it. I am grateful that Ginny took care of Sadie while I was gone. And then I am grateful no matter what my times and distances were. Maybe I was supposed to run ten miles and I only had time for six – doesn’t matter! I got to run, and that was a blessing, even a source of joy.

All of this reminds us that Jewish traditions ask us to act in a way that we may not feel, so as to create the emotion we hope to have. Judaism recognizes that the mind-body connection works both ways – when we force ourselves to do something we create some momentum towards feeling differently too. Even more simply, it is a life-practice of “fake it ‘til you make it”. The system of Jewish practices, applied, experimented on, reinterpreted, and reapplied in our own lives and in our own ways aims to help us find regular moments of little joy.

Some days I can’t fake it so well. Some days I am too, whatever, and usually the ones who suffer the most are those closest to me. On those days we can take a little advice from a non-Jewish thinker, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, who talks about non-toothache days.

Non-toothache days. We must always be grateful that today is a non-toothache day.

Happiness is enjoying what we have.

We try to see the small miracle even when a whole host of things cloud our vision of the wonder of the normal.

As we find our own ways to acknowledge and celebrate all of those daily blessings, so we can find high points in our weeks and seasons.

We are a people who come together regularly to enjoy a good nosh, and a little prayer service.

Every week we have an excuse to create “delight” – to practice Shabbat is to remember to find some joy at least once a week. Think of Shabbat as a reminder that if the week has dragged us down, sapped our “fake it ‘til we make it” batteries, that we have an excuse to recharge our celebratory engines. When we accept Shabbat as an opportunity for that stop, that necessary break, then we can embrace it as joyful.

Shabbat happens when we make it happen. In our household, some weeks we get to make Shabbat at 3:30 on Friday afternoon. My break in the week happens on Thursday, or on Saturday night, or for an hour or two on a Sunday afternoon, maybe, if I’m lucky during a Panthers game.

Find a time, make Shabbat – when we can.

It definitely works better when we do it with our family and with our community at the time when we all try to make Shabbat.

Let’s aim to find the time, once a week, to inject a little “delight” into our lives, and take a break from the normal.

Now, this may come as a surprise to us all – our traditions teach us that the joy in the observance counts more than the observance itself.

Really – joy counts more than the details.

In Deuteronomy we find words that seem to say the opposite:

(Deut. 27:26)

Cursed be the one that does not fulfill the words of this Torah, to observe them!

From this, we could get the idea that observance is all that counts. And yet here is a Hasidic teaching about this very verse in Deuteronomy.

[From Arthur Green, Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, Volume 2, pp. 128-129]

Fulfilling all of the commandments, which the Torah seems to say we must do in order to avoid getting cursed, only seems like an impossible task. First, everyone knows that no one can fulfill all of the commandments. The Hasidic teaching goes further, and says that each commandment can be viewed as containing all of the commandments.

So, if this teaching is true, then why does the Torah read that we get cursed for not fulfilling all of them? The Torah can’t have an extraneous teaching. The curse is there to remind us that joy is the key to fulfilling the commandments – to achieve one commandment that fulfills all of them, we must start with joy.

The teaching continues:

“’Prayer without inner direction is like a body without a soul.’ The letters of Torah and prayer, as well as the fulfilled commandment, are all the body; the soul is the inner direction and the joyous thought we have in doing God’s will.”

All of the commandments are separate when we do them physically – when we do a commandment with a joyous thought all the commandments become united. This is why later on in Deuteronomy it reads that we will be cursed:

(Deut. 28:47) because you did not serve Adonai your God in joy and in good-feeling of heart out of the abundance of everything.

Don’t worry about the details of the commandments for Shabbat. Find a place and time to do a bit of Shabbat with joy.

We are a people with a lot of holidays.

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld writes about the journey through our holiday year:

“…the key to a successful journey is not reaching the promised destination, but rather being aware of every moment on the journey. To be successful [we] need to rejoice, to travel with simcha, ‘joy’.”

We are not a people who arrive at final destinations, we are a people who journey.

As we plot our course through our holy days we also do not reach an ending place.

There are at least four different new years – Rosh HaShanah, the celebration of the creation of the world; Simchat Torah, the celebration of the completion and restarting of the cycle of reading the Torah; Tu biShvat, the New Year of the trees; and the first of Nisan, the first month of the year, the month of Passover, when the natural world is renewed in Spring.

With all these festival beginnings we have many starts, and no finishes!

Regularly, people say to me, “You Jewish people – what’s with all the holidays?”

I need to start responding: “You bet – we are a people who love to have an excuse to have a celebration. These holidays are reminders to bring joy into our everyday lives every month of the year.”

We celebrate AND we apologize.

We take a full month before Rosh HaShanah to work on repenting. What’s the connection between apologies and a New Year celebration?

Our son Jude once asked: “Why don’t people apologize? It makes it stop hurting.”

Apologies clear the way for celebrating.

When we apologize, when we make amends, we put down the burden of needing to know everything, of being in control.

When the High Holy Day season asks us to do tshuvah, to make amends, we can let go of the burden of having done wrong, once we apologize, make it right, then rejoice in the liberation from it.

We didn't know better, we didn't mean it, we thought it would be better, we didn't think enough, we’re doing what we can to make it better, forgive me, now let’s have a Happy New Year.

This celebration that we arrive at may not be stereotypical – we may not find the joy that we see depicted in a movie or an advertisement. Joy happens amid all the other things going on – we find it on the upside of our rhythms. We must have non-joy in order to fully experience joy. We must notice and celebrate the difference in order to fully celebrate at all.

This means finding some authentic joy, not manufacturing it. This won’t be Madison Avenue's joy. It's our own thing: personal joy from self-knowledge and self-exploration, which we found by clearing the way with apologies.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, said that the worst thing we can do, is to worry too much about our mistakes. Too much guilt keeps us far from God. Apologies act as a release valve for the guilt. In joy and wholeness, we fully feel God’s Presence, the miraculous nature of our existence. As long as we are at war with ourselves, we have no room in us to make a dwelling place for God. The main focus is on loving God, sharing that love with God’s creatures, doing it through joy and celebration of life.

[Arthur Green, Ehyeh, A Kabbalah for Tomorrow, p. 125]

Our God and God of all ages, please be mindful of Your People Israel on this Day of Remembrance, and renew in us love and compassion, goodness, life, joy, and peace.

This day remember us for well-being.

This day bless us with Your nearness.

This day help us to live, and live with joy and celebration.

Let us join together in joy for this New Year.

Celebrate more, and find ways to do it that are more authentically us.

Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC, gathers for Tashlich in Freedom Park, on Rosh HaShanah, 5775-2014  Thanks to Ginny Reel-Freirich for the photo!

Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC, gathers for Tashlich in Freedom Park, on Rosh HaShanah, 5775-2014

Thanks to Ginny Reel-Freirich for the photo!

Reform Judaism is Traditional Judaism

Erev Rosh HaShanah – 5774

Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

“Hineni,” I am here.

I am present, in this moment, to celebrate the New Year, atone for the mistakes of the past year, and turn towards the future ready to do better. I am present to connect with my self, the people around me, and with our God.

“Hineinu”

We are present to begin our holy days together.

This sentiment of presence at this moment connects us to historical and traditional Judaism – the traditions of Jews for thousands of years.

Though we call ourselves Reformers much later, reform in Judaism has been with us from the beginning. The principles of reforming – individual choice, creativity, innovation in the face of change, the use of wisdom from all sources – all have been present in the Torah, and in Judaism, from the start.

We evolve, we think about the future and how to respond to it, we respect each other’s differences, we create priorities among values, so that some, like compassion and hospitality, come before others, like keeping kosher and laws of purity.

We follow very closely in the footsteps of our ancestors in the Torah, in the Talmud, in the Middle Ages. In this way we are like Jews have always been.

Most Jews coming to synagogue tonight will say or hear this word “Hineini”, “Here I am”.

These are the words of Abraham, the first Jew and the first Reform Jew. At the beginning of the Binding of Isaac God calls out to Abraham, and Abraham responds,

Hineini, “Here I am”.

We all know the story…

God tested Abraham.

We are left to figure out exactly what the test was. We say it was a test of faith and obedience. Will Abraham sacrifice the child promised to him, the child through whom Abraham’s reward from God – a great nation – will emerge?

Every year we return to Binding of Isaac and every year I try to find a new take on it. In this way, we are like Jews throughout history trying to figure this story out. This year, reading through some of the Hebrew commentaries on it, I found one small comment by a 12th and 13th century scholar, Rabbi David Kimchi. Rabbi Kimchi noted that if this had been about obedience alone, wouldn’t God would have told Abraham, “Do this now”? But no, God said:

Go to the land of Moriah…

Moriah was far away. God asked Abraham to take a three-day journey. Abraham was eager to obey. He got up early and went, avoiding Sarah, knowing that what he planned to do would upset her, to say the least.

Rabbi Kimchi said that God meant to send Abraham on a long walk, to allow him “l’hitbonen”, “to gain insight for himself”. Obedience was not the whole test. God also tested Abraham’s ability to think, reason, and learn. God intended Abraham to deliberate as much about the life of his son, as he did about the lives of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, for whom he argued with God.

Then, along the way Isaac stopped and said:

Father!

And Abraham answered: Hineini/Here I am, my son.

First Abraham was present for God, and now Abraham was present for Isaac. Abraham showed us that we must be present for God AND for our families.

Isaac suspected something. He said: “Hey Dad, looks like we are going to go make a burnt offering – what’s on the menu?”

They had been on the road for a few days, Abraham pondered God’s demand, and had some doubts when Isaac asked this question. Obviously, he could not be upfront with his son about the idea of offering him up as a sacrifice, so Abraham decided to express trust in God – God would see to the offering.

At first Abraham was eager, and now, in the middle of the journey, perhaps less eager. Our classical rabbis didn’t like to imagine Abraham boldly lying to Isaac, so they note that Abraham knew that things would work out differently, since what he said, that God would see to the lamb for the offering, was pretty close to how the it ended up.

In no time we have Abraham holding the knife over Isaac. At this instant, God’s messenger, called out to Abraham from heaven, and Abraham again responded,

 “Hineini/Here I am”,

ready to hear you. And this moment of hesitation, brought on by Abraham’s doubts from the long walk to Mount Moriah, let Abraham lift up his eyes, and see the ram caught in the thicket, and then offer the ram instead of Isaac.

Abraham listened. He obeyed one command. And then Abraham didn’t say to God, “Hold on, I’m in the middle of doing your command.”

Instead, that still small voice of his conscience held his hand, gave him pause, and allowed him to lift up his eyes and see the ram that had been there from the start. Abraham’s openness to change, to an actual change what God wanted, and Abraham’s devotion to the value of all life, saved Isaac.

We do what Abraham did.

We look at our actions and think about them. We do not obey without question.

The rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud were reformers of the most radical order – they created new traditions and institutions when Judaism faced the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. In fact, they had been crafting a new Judaism for over 200 years before the destruction of the Temple, and so were best prepared to propose something new that could survive the loss of our center.

The famous rabbis Hillel and Shammai lived long before the destruction of the Second Temple, and already they developed and debated home observances like Chanukah and Shabbat, and worship outside the Temple. Synagogues and Houses of Learning were built far from Jerusalem long before the Temple’s destruction. We don’t have to rely on our rabbis’ memories of these buildings, many of us here have visited the remains of ancient synagogues throughout Israel, including the synagogue at Masada, many of them dating to over 100 years before the common era.

In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, with some places of learning and practices already established, our ancient rabbis began centuries of conversations about how to live their new Judaism, and wrote the Mishnah and the Talmud. These rabbis wrote the first book of the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot, the Chapters of the Ancestors, and explicitly connected the giving of Torah to Moses at Sinai in a line of transmission of scholars all the way down to the themselves. Our ancient rabbis wrote themselves into the Torah! What chutzpah!

 “Hineinu.” The rabbis were present.

They were present for to make the changes that helped Judaism survive.

Abraham became present and opened up to the change that a long walk might offer him. The rabbis who created our Judaism opened up all Jews to new ideas: the synagogue could evolve from the Temple, prayer could evolve from sacrifices, and books could contain our legacy of wisdom.

The rabbis of this early Rabbinic Period revitalized Passover, and made it into a home observance. They promoted the head of household into the master of ceremonies for the Passover Seder, which they created to celebrate one of our most central holidays. They took things out of the Temple court and made them part of our home lives.

When faced with a need to change and evolve, these early rabbis rose to the occasion and spent 500 years crafting a process for figuring out how to do Jewish – today we call the record of that work the Mishnah and the Talmud.

Not only did they create new Jewish rituals and institutions, the rabbis also knew that they couldn’t push it too far. At one point in the Talmud’s discussions of Shabbat they actually admit that they could derive more restrictions for Shabbat than they could convincingly ask Jews to observe. The rabbis knew that our opinions mattered too. Our Talmudic rabbis were present for the what Jews cared about.

 “Hineinu.” We are present to learn from everyone.

Like our reforming ancestors before us, Reform Jews today revere knowledge from all sources. We aim to incorporate any wisdom that seems to work.

Maimonides, one of the most important Jewish scholars in our history, wrote in the 12th century that should the popular understanding of the creation of the world ever differ from the one described in Genesis, then we Jews should read our story as a good story, not a description of reality. We have been a scientifically minded people for a long time, always attempting to find a path that includes our historical writings and the truths of the times we live in.

Maimonides was also an esteemed authority in secular learning – he was revered by non-Jews as a doctor, as an astronomer, and as a philosopher. Before Maimonides, the rabbis of antiquity incorporated Greek philosophy into the Talmud. After Maimonides Renaissance commentators on the Torah used the same psychological thinking that informed Shakespeare. We love to learn, and we love to learn from any source.

The Torah is the symbol of our wisdom, not the entirety of it.

We Reform Jews understand this, we have been present for it, and we follow along paths that were well-trod long before the founding of the Reform movement.

“Hineinu.” We are present to learn from any and all sources of wisdom.

Our modern Reform Judaism emerged when 19th Century German Jews needed an authentic Jewish experience that connected them to their pasts and also allowed them to say,

“Here we are,

in a synagogue with others who share our values.”

Jews with secular educations began to succeed and live well in German cities of the early 1800’s. The Judaism they found there reminded them of the little synagogues in the shtetls that their grandparents had left behind decades before. They no longer dressed, spoke, worked, or lived like people from the country, so the religion from the country no longer spoke to them either. They began with a few simple innovations: a prayer book written with German translations, a sermon given in German instead of Yiddish. Tthey followed the teachings of the Talmud, that emphasize that prayer must be said in a language that people understand.

These urban Jews spoke German and not Yiddish, and needed to understand the holy words of their prayers, and the sermons of their leaders.

These early Reformers met their new needs. With thought and deliberation, over time, they followed Abraham’s model of “l’hitbonen”, to build insights for themselves, and in turn to build a Reform Judaism out of the Judaism of the past, using historical values and principles and applying them to their new situation, exactly like the rabbis of the Talmud.

Reform Judaism is mainstream, traditional, and historical Judaism. When we innovate we respond in a traditional and evolutionary manner to changes in our situations.

The reaction against these innovations became Orthodoxy.

Yes, that’s right – Reform Judaism came first, and the reaction against it, Orthodoxy, second. And in perfect Jewish form, early Orthodox Jews felt Judaism was in crisis and created a new idea about Judaism, a rigid conservatism, a resistance to change that in and of itself was a new form of Judaism. Judaism reacts to the times, and we often come up with different reactions.

 “Hineinu – here we are!”

         We Reform Jews are heirs to a long line of Jews who took reforming seriously.

We are here and present to listen and learn from our ancient traditions, and see how best to apply them to our situations today.

We are here to learn from each other, from other Jews, and from the best that science and human thought has to offer.

We are here to be present for each other as Jews who care deeply about who we have always been, and who we may yet become.

We are here, and we stand between the rich history of the Jewish people, and the promise of a future that we will build together.

Hineinu – we are present.

         Like Abraham, the ancient rabbis, and all of our sages:

We are present for God, we are present for our families, we are present for our greater communities, and we are present to be Reform Jews.

L’shanah Tovah, a good year, a year of growth and reform, a year of authentic Judaism which is ours to make, a better and brighter 5774 for us all.

 

Shofar at Pride.png

Getting a handle on things one holiday at a time

Many of us are list-makers. I imagine I am not the only one who thrills in checking items off of those lists. We get to bring some order to our worlds that often seem out of control when we take all those things we have to do and itemize them. Then, with some sense of small victory, we concretely show that they have been completed with the stroke of a pen.

The Torah offers us the same kind of teaching this week in Parashat Pinchas. Two full chapters – Numbers chapters 28 and 29 – itemize the holidays of the year, from daily offerings to New Moon offerings, to all the celebrations around each holiday.

In these directions we see the need to establish regular customs and practices, expected times of gathering and prescribed things to do at those moments. So our ancient Israelite ancestors developed a structure to their lives and the calendar, allowing them to see the scope of the year in acknowledged weeks, months, and seasons.

However we manage to encounter a world that may often feel like mayhem, Judaism offers us frameworks in the calendar as models of breaking things down into smaller bits that may help us handle the whole more easily.

Happy list checking!

To fast or not to fast - summer mourning?

Today is the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz – one of a series of holidays in the summer that most Jews have never heard of.

This one begins a three week period remembering the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem that culminates in the observance of Tisha b’Av – the 9th of Av – arguably the worst and saddest day in Jewish history. On this day both Temples were destroyed, the First Crusade started, the Spanish Expulsion began, and more.

Why fast and/or maintain these days when we have Israel, when perhaps the reasons for our fasting – the longing for a return – may be obsolete?

Tal Becker reminds us in the article below that longing for a repaired world is part of the fundamentals of the Jewish psyche, and I agree – the metaphor of being lost and needing to find our way, to repair ourselves and our community, may not be removed from our Jewish consciousness.

Thanks to Rabbi Judith Schindler for pointing out this piece, and don’t forget to join us for a detailed discussion of this and other topics around the 9th of Av on Monday evening, July 15 – a pre-fast dinner and start the fast learning starting at 6pm at Temple Beth El in Charlotte.

Tal Becker on Summer Fast Days

Another Response to a Jewish Atheist

On why we should explore Judaism beyond what we learned in Religious School before our Bat or Bar Mitzvah, and how much more there is out there than what is read in the headlines about Judaism...

Not liking one philosophy class or professor doesn't make all philosophy classes or professors not to our taste. Pop culture headlines do not define a culture. I wouldn't trust my views alone, anymore than I would trust pop culture, anymore than I would dismiss a large set of ideas based on a small sample size. How much time have you spent looking at "progressive Judaism"? Jews NEVER read the Hebrew Scripture alone - we always have read it with commentary and interpretation. We never lived it literally (I mean really, executing people for Shabbat violations and for disobeying parents - we are a small group, and that would explain our extermination more than our small size). The Torah is meant to be the beginning of conversations not the end of them. The same with the Talmud. Judaism has undergone radical changes in the last 175 years - most of them from the side of radical reactionary movements, not progressive, secularist, reformers. The changes to the Judaism on the right have been far more dramatic than any on the left. How could anyone have afforded 6 sets of dishes (or two dishwashers!) in the shtetl?

TBE Women Stand With Women of the Wall

Temple Beth El women stand with Torah scrolls wearing Tallitot to show solidarity with Anat Hoffman and the Women of the Wall who peacefully and justifiably demand equal rights to pray at Judaism's holiest site, the Kotel (the Wall), in Jerusalem.

Temple Beth El women stand with Women of the Wall
Temple Beth El women stand with Women of the Wall

Realistic Theology

Torah-Inspired, Reflection of The Day:

Today we look at B'chukotai, Leviticus 26:3 - 27:34 - two chapters, almost, with the first focused on the outcomes of following or not following God's commandments, and the second on the rules about vows, concluding with the last verse of Leviticus:

These are the commandments that Adonai commanded Moses for the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

As rationalists, we often bristle at the idea that following commandments would result in blessings and not following them would result in curses. Reward and punishment theology seems unrealistic at best, we even have a Biblical book arguing against it entirely - the Book of Job.

So how do we learn from these texts?

When we follow reasonable practices that help us get along with each other better, when we treat the planet better, we will likely find our lives turn out better. Following a social contract creates better society. Noticing that certain practices hurt the environment, and in turn our livelihoods and fates, and then changing our behavior, leads us to a better life for all.

Our theology should support demands for improved behavior, without threatening supernatural rewards and punishments.

Celebrating Our Vulnerability on Sukkot

[From Sukkot Worship at Temple Beth El, on Monday, October 11, 2012 - 15 Tishrei 5772]

Our pilgrimage festivals seem to follow a natural pattern:

Passover – celebrate freedom

Shavuot – celebrate the giving of Torah

Sukkot – if we were to complete the pattern, we should be celebrating the arrival in Israel, the completion of our journey.

Instead, we celebrate our vulnerability – we celebrate the sources of our sustenance – how the planet provides for us through harvest and shelter, and how fragile all of that is.

Seems strange, as the finale of a three-part series – freedom, wisdom, vulnerability – this is something of a let down.

Yet, this may be one of the central keys to Judaism.

When we arrive in the Promised Land, when we complete the journey, our history has just begun. We do not celebrate a final sense of redemption in this world. We are not a people who believe that our work will be, or has ever been, complete.

Instead, we choose, as the most celebratory of our three primary festivals, to take in the harvest, eat, drink, and be satisfied, for a moment, while still knowing that the seasons will yet change again, and there will be more work to be done.

We do not have a holy day that marks completion, instead we sit in our temporary structures on Sukkot, happy to have brought in a good harvest, and see how fragile it all is. We notice that our completion is momentary.

Sukkot sends us a fundamental message about the nature of life. As we have come through our seasons of inspiration, our celebration of the creation of the world on Rosh Hashanah, and our deep time of repentance on Yom Kippur, Sukkot gets us back to the everyday – our needs being met by the earth, and our need to reconnect with those physical needs. We live in the desert forever – we do not reach completion. We get through the desert with the blessing of the bounty of our harvest, when we are lucky to have enough, and through the blessings of our communities coming together to share that harvest and make sure we everyone shares in our bounty.

Fragility, vulnerability, life as wanderers – this is life. As Jews we recognize it and celebrate when we succeed at living with it, as well as the need to make sure we don’t ignore it.

May this year be one where we live well with our fragile world, and guard against the hazards it brings by coming together to bring each other blessings of sustenance.